Sometime before I was born, it became the norm that one’s faith was embodied in their politics. And somewhere along that road, the two became yoked, conjoined to the point that they became nearly indistinguishable.
In a recent article posted on The Atlantic entitled “The Religious Right Turns 33: What Have We Learned?,” author Jonathan Merritt locates this moment with the formation of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in June of 1979. Meritt makes two points in reflecting on the 33 years since the Moral Majority’s inception: “First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity,” and “Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture.”
Many young evangelicals like Merritt (and Christians of all stripes, for that matter) have voiced their frustration at this inherited inseparable link between politics and faith. We understand that one naturally affects the other, but wonder why they seem to be so often equated.
And I’m not just talking about the Moral Majority’s “culture wars,” either—both sides of the aisle carry some of the blame. The conservative Christians view the Christian Left as heretical perversions of the True Faith, perhaps even to the point of denouncing them as false teachers that cannot even call themselves “Christians.” The Christian Left, meanwhile, views their conservative cohorts as failing to properly embody the compassion and love of Christ to the world, and as preaching a counterfeit Gospel that isn’t in keeping with the Beatitudes.
In this election year, the culture-war-fighting Christian Right, though perhaps smaller than in decades past, remains more vocal than ever. And, not to be outdone, the Christian Left has made its claims quite clear as well, fighting on the other side of the debates surrounding marriage equality, healthcare, and tax policies that have occupied the headlines for months.
Young Christians feel cast adrift, and many of them have resorted to an aspiration for a “post-partisan” expression of their religious identity. Merritt’s recent book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars speaks to this very desire. And even books like David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me and Gaby Lyons’ The Next Christians, though both about the larger discussion of the future of the faith, still grasp at the same issue.
Yet this discussion has led some to argue that there is no such thing as a “post-partisan” way of thinking: one’s faith necessarily entails a cadre of political beliefs, and these beliefs must be fought for, advocated for, and preserved. In sum, one expresses their faith with their vote. There’s no getting around it. You have to choose: left or right.
But what if we had another option?
Polls show approval ratings for both parties at an all-time low. Democrats and Republicans are growing more polarized, and this has left a good chunk of the American public feeling a little bit like disaffected young Christians—frustrated and cast adrift. Indeed, the largest political constituency in the United States is comprised of those who list themselves as Independents.
A study released this past May by USA Today and Gallup showed that a majority of Americans—fifty-two percent—favored a third political party, down from a record high of 58% the previous August. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest support for a third party came from Independents, 68% of whom desired a third party option.
So, would a viable third party help alleviate voters’ frustrations? What effect would it have on Christian voters in particular?
To some degree, I feel it would inject a bit more nuance into the din of political discourse. It would likely drive the GOP to be more conservative and the Democrats to be more liberal, but in so doing would complicate the dichotomy that leads to the easy polarization of the other party. A two party system is naturally conducive to negativity, since, in order to maintain the binary of left and right, liberal and conservative, each party must define itself against the other one. If a third party entered the mix, it might have the potential to make discussions more about what policies candidates support rather than which ones they don’t.
This might mean the emergence of a true “Christian Middle”— a bloc of voters that find themselves disenchanted with the hardline conservatism of “culture war” Christianity, but might not align with pieces of liberal policy positions. Right now, Christian voters face two problematic choices, in that each candidate may not stand for the values and policies that may align with one’s Christian values. A third party still wouldn’t be perfect in this regard, but more choice would certainly help, providing a middle way that might tone down the feverish, high-pitched rhetoric that has come to define American political discourse.
Ultimately, however, I think that the real problem lies not in the lack of a proper political party, but in the misguided assumption that we can legislate morality of any kind. This, as Merritt points out in his Atlantic article, constitutes the failing of the Christian Right. He says: “…Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts— not just the halls of power.” This is why, thirty years later, all of the battles fought by the Moral Majority haven’t gained any ground—abortion is still legal, gay marriage looks like an ever increasing reality, and government hasn’t gotten any smaller.
I agree with Merritt that the “true change must occur in hearts,” and would like to point out that his words apply to all sides— Right, Left, and Middle.
If we as Christians really want to affect change in this country and the world, we will have to do so from the bottom-up, not the top-down. We will have to restore our communities, reach out in service, and do a better job of communicating the love and Gospel of Christ to those around us. No third party can do that. So, while a third party could provide some much needed political choice, I believe that it would mean next to nothing for Christian America. Our real “war” isn’t a legislative or political one, it’s an internal one.
The Church remains its strongest and purest when it holds a “from the margins” mindset. As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals often hearken back with nostalgia to the first century church— the writings of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, etc. But Christians during that time were not in power, nor did they seek it. They operated underground, misunderstood; for instance, Pliny the Younger famously thought Christians were cannibals because they celebrated the Eucharist.
Despite the fact that the early church operated with perhaps even greater divides between themselves and the larger culture than we do now, the Apostles did not call for a culture war or even a social revolution. They didn’t “occupy” things or vie for political office. Instead, they spread their message of hope and redemption to those in desperate need of it. They didn’t seek a “top-down” change because they understood that, to God, hearts matter. Relationships matter. They saw the Kingdom of Heaven as built from the bottom-up.
This is what I see as the future of the church in America—a church that doesn’t have to “fight” anyone, because it shows love to everyone, making its argument for religious liberty, Christian values, and the importance of the Christian faith by demonstrating these values in the way we live, not just the way we vote.
Cameron is a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. Though he grew up just outside of Nashville, TN, Cameron's postulancy comes out of the Diocese of Springfield, IL. He's currently pursuing an M.Div. from Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, TN after which he willÑGod willingÑbe ordained deacon and later, priest. Consequently, he loves anything Anglican and hates bad vestments. He graduated with distinction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earning a degree in English Literature, and now, according to some scientific reports, bleeds orange and blue. In addition to his interests in writing, religion and culture, Cameron enjoys the literature of the late Middle Ages to the Early Renaissance (esp. Chaucer), the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and an Oxford literary group called the Inklings. He believes some of the best worship music was written before 1700. (Don't believe him? Just Google "Allegri's Miserere," or anything having to do with either "Thomas Tallis" or "Palestrina." He's serious. Do it.) That said, he's got a soft spot for Fleet Foxes, Coldplay and Flogging Molly. Cameron loves drinking deeply of the richness of life, spending time with his fiancee, and playing with his dog, Arthur. He is the co-founder of the site Faith Line Protestants, which seeks to explore the intersection of evangelism, service, and interfaith cooperation. Cameron's work has also appeared on the Huffington Post and the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog. Folksy wisdom and dry wit are always appreciated. Follow him on Twitter @Cameron_Nations, or at his personal blog ByThePen.wordpress.com.